Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook’s Unjust Strategic Leader in a Crisis

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook (and Instagram) “remained silent” during the two days after the data-breach scandal broke in March, 2018 as E.U. and U.S. lawmakers “pummeled Facebook and its stock price” dropped 9 percent.[1] The company lost $50 billion in market value in just those two days![2] Beyond the self-interested investors and the demoralized employees, the company’s 2 billion users—the suppliers of the raw content (to be mined as well as shared)—and the world (i.e., societal level) looked for ethical (i.e., atoning as well as protective) leadership from the company’s CEO. To be just, I submit, the leadership could not have been a mere reflection of Zuckerberg’s or Facebook’s immediate self-interests.
When users had “complained about bugs and problems with Apple Maps app in 2012, Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, released a statement that said ‘we fell short.’”[3] Even though releasing a statement is more managerial than associated with leadership, the contrition evinces an ethical tone as he held his own (and Apple’s) immediate self-interest at bay. In contrast, Facebook’s faceless statements in the wake of the psychological-political personal-data breach stressed that Facebook had been blameless.
In 2011, “when Netflix tried to split off its mail-order DVD business into a company called Qwikster, its chief executive, Reed Hastings, wrote a letter to the public. ‘I messed up,’ he [wrote]. ‘I own everyone an explanation.’”[4] Hastings’ credibility was boistered by his voluntary assumption of responsibility. Evading the problem would have signaled a lack of leadership, as would have an eventual explanation blaming other companies or people.
Even at Uber in 2017 when “a former engineer revealed a pattern of sexual harassment,” Travis Kalanick, the company’s CEO, informed the public that “he would immediately open an investigation.”[5] Even in a sordid corporate culture, leadership can be shown by taking the proverbial bull by the horns rather than going into hiding until the worst of the storm has passed. It is hardly surprising, given this comparison, that some employees at Facebook tried to jump ship in the wake of the scandal, citing the “demoralizing” nature of their work on Facebook’s main product.[6] Those employees could have used an ethical leader, but Zuckerberg was AWOL internally too.
I suspect that Zuckerberg evaded assuming a leadership role inside the company and societally in the wake of the scandal because his calculating mind was on how to carefully craft a public statement designed in line with his (and his company’s) immediate and long-term self-interest. In his eventual statement, although he admitted that Facebook had made mistakes, he "stopped short of a full-throated apology and was at times defensive."[7] He insisted his company was taking steps to protect its users' data from being harvested. Yet it took a whistleblower for Facebook to react (including admitting to the breach), and years earlier, Zuckerberg had made the same promise. Could he be trusted again, especially considering his track record in favoring investor over user interest?
Zuckerberg used his interview on CNN on March 21, 2018 to try to reframe the issue two degrees of separation from Facebook to Russian meddling. A leadership vision that has another party as principal bad guy is not ethical when the issue on the table lays culpability at the leader's own door. Furthermore, the pivot evades, and thus confirms any determinations that he and his company are not to be trusted.  
Strategic leadership, moreover, lacks credibility for employees and especially societally if the vision component is a mere reflection of the organization’s immediate and even medium-term financial interest; the long-term interest is more in line with a societally-valued vision.[8] For a leadership vision to establish, maintain, or bolster trust beyond an organization at the societal level, the values in the vision must resonate with societal values. This idea itself resonates with Plato’s notion of justice as resonance between a well-ordered (i.e., reason controlling passions) polis (organization or city) and well-ordered psyches (i.e., the human mind). Applying this theory to strategic leadership, I contend that a (societally-recognized) just strategic leader utilizes reason to hold the temptation of (self-interest) strategic interests back from dominating the crafting of a leadership vision such that it can be valid societally. The just strategic leader reasons that accepting discomfort rather than evading the spotlight in a crisis is in a company’s best long-term interest, and that damage-control to defend oneself and the company against the immediate attacks actually evinces weakness, ethically and otherwise. The unjust leader (and organization) insists that a vision is valid societally even though it is actually “window-dressing” to advance strategic interests or protect them. I submit that Facebook’s Zuckerberg was oriented to the latter in the wake of the crisis, and more generally to the advancing the ultra-specific interests of Facebook’s investors (rather than the users who supply the content).

Employees look for leadership in the midst of a demoralizing crisis. (USA Today)

See the essay "Facebook: A Distrustful Company."

See also the booklet, "Taking the Face Off Facebook."

1. Jessica Guynn, “As Facebook Reels from ‘Catastrophic Moment’ in Cambridge Analytica Crisis,” Mark Zuckerberg Is Silent,” USA Today, March 21, 2018.
2.  Kevin Roose and Sheera Frenkel, “Missing From Facebook’s Crisis: Mark Zuckerberg,” The New York Times, March 21, 2018.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Sheera Frenkel and Kevin Roose, "Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Vows to Bolster Privacy amid Cambridge Analytica Crisis," The New York Times, March 21, 2018.
8. Skip Worden, “The Role of Integrity as a Mediator in Strategic Leadership: A Recipe for Reputational Capital,” Journal of Business Ethics, 46 (August, 2003) No. 1, pp. 31-44.